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Developing Country Farmers Bridge the ‘Biotechnology Divide’

Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Last Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013
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Critics of agricultural biotechnology have long contended that it would not benefit farmers in developing countries. Their concerns were not unjustified.

A large number of technologies continue to be restricted to industrialized countries despite their global relevance.

Farmers in developing countries, however, are bridging the "biotechnology divide." According to a new report by Clive James of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), "For the first time, developing countries grew more, 52% of global biotech crops in 2012 than industrialized countries at 48%."

The report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012, notes that this is "contrary to the predictions of critics who, prior to the commercialization of the technology in 1996, prematurely declared that biotechnology were only for industrial countries and would never be accepted and adopted by developing countries."

It is notable that over the last year two new developing countries (Sudan and Cuba) joined the club of agricultural biotechnology, while Poland, Germany, and Sweden stopped growing transgenic crops. It is unlikely that the European Union will relax its regulations in the near future. As a result, future growth in biotechnology adoption will occur in developing countries.

Sudan's biotechnology lessons are likely to inspire other countries in the region. Cuba's entry into crop biotechnology is significant because of the country's emphasis on using the technology to promote ecologically-sound and pesticide-free crops. Both Sudan and Cuba have a history of giving priority to domestic agricultural research.

Agricultural biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology over the last century. According to the report, "2012 marked an unprecedented 100-fold increase in biotech crop hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 170 million hectares in 2012." This consistent adoption of transgenic crops is an indication they farmers find them valuable.

These shifting trends also have been accompanied by more economic benefits accruing to developing countries. According to the report, during "the period 1966–2011 cumulative economic benefits were high in developing countries at US$49.6 billion compared to US$48.6 billion generated by industrial countries."

So far the main traits being adopted are the same ones initially developed for industrialized countries. The main policy challenge for developing countries is the extent to which the technology will be adapted to meet new needs rather than extend the use of existing crops.

The analogy for this kind of thinking can be found in the evolution of the mobile phone. Initially developed for communication, mobile phones are now being deployed in banking, health, education, and emergency services in developing countries.

Emerging evidence suggests that developing countries are starting to focus their attention on adapting biotechnology to local needs. This process is also associated with the development of domestic biotechnology capacity as part of the expansion of the "freedom to innovate."

Two examples illustrate this shift. In Nigeria scientists have developed a pest-resistant variety of the blackeyed pea, a subspecies of the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata). The crop is often attacked by the insect Maruca vitrata, resulting in an annual loss of US$300 million to smallholder farmers. The main method to control the pest is to spray pesticides, which cost the countries nearly US$500 million annually. Africa is the world's leading producer of the blackeyed pea, accounting for nearly 70% of the market—or about 6.1 million tons.

To address the problem, scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research at Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria have developed a transgenic blackeyed pea variety using insecticide genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. This breakthrough demonstrated the existence of local capacity to apply existing techniques to unique African problems.

African crop diseases are also becoming the focus of local research. Bananas, for example, are a staple in Uganda and other parts of the Great Lakes region. The crop is threatened by Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that is costing Uganda nearly US$500 in banana losses.

Ugandan scientists are working to create a transgenic banana using genes extracted from sweet pepper (Capsicum annuum) to control Xanthomonas. The disease also has been reported in ensete banana (Ensete ventricosum), a staple crop in Ethiopia.

The Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (ASARECA) has been at the forefront of supporting biotechnology research that addresses local needs. These include locally driven research on animal disease diagnostics, banana, cassava, beans, napier grass, and sweet potato.

These examples illustrate that lack of scientific capacity is no longer the most important barrier that African countries face in bridging the “biotechnology divide.” Many of them, with support from the United Nations, have put regulations in place that severely restrict the adoption of new biotechnology products.

These policies were initially developed to regulate imports of biotechnology products. Ironically, it appears that their most negative impacts are likely to be felt by local scientists who are working to solve pressing agricultural problems that affect staple foods in the region.

The rising adoption of transgenic crops by tropical countries, however, will also increase opportunities for international cooperation, given the similarities in ecological and economic conditions. Such cooperation will help enhance trust in the technology and facilitate adoption.

What is needed, as Clive James highlights, is "responsible, rigorous but not onerous, regulation." Without such regulation, farmers in developing countries will continue to be denied the benefits of biotechnology by the misguided policies and regulations of their own governments.

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